Can AI restore our humanity?
Sudheesh Nair, CEO of ThoughtSpot earnestly campaigns for artificial intelligence as a panacea for restoring our humanity - by making us able to do more work.
Whether AI is helping a commuter navigate through a city or supporting a doctor’s medical diagnosis, it relieves humans from mind-numbing, repetitive and error-prone tasks. This scares some business leaders, who worry AI could make people lazy, feckless and over-dependent. The more utopian minded - me included - see AI improving society and business while individuals get to enjoy happier, more fulfilling lives.
Fortunately, this need not launch yet another polarised debate. The more we apply AI to real world problems, the more glaringly clear it becomes that machine and human intelligence must work together to produce the right outcomes. Humans teach AI to understand context and patterns so that algorithms produce fair, ethical decisions. Equally, AI’s blind rationality helps humans overcome destructive failings like confirmation bias.
Crucially, as humans and machines are increasingly able to ‘converse’ through friendlier interfaces, decision-making improves and consumers are better served. Through this process, AI is already ending what I call the ‘tyranny of averages’ - where people with similar preferences, habits, or even medical symptoms, get lumped into broad categories and receive identical service or treatment.
Fewer hours, higher productivity
In business AI is taking over mundane tasks like expense reporting and timesheets, along with complex data analysis. This means people can devote time to charity work, spend time with their kids, exercise more or just kick back. In their jobs, they get to do all those human things that often wind up on the back burner, like mentor others and celebrate success. For this reason alone, I see AI as an undeniable force for good.
One strong indicator that AI’s benefits are kicking in is that some companies are successfully moving to a four-day workweek. Companies like the American productivity software firm Basecamp and New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian are recent poster children for working shorter hours while raising productivity. This has profound implications for countries like Japan, whose economy is among the least productive despite its people notoriously working the longest hours.
However, AI is about more than having to work fewer hours. Having to multitask less means less stress over the possibility of ‘dropping the ball’. Workers can focus more on tasks that contribute positively and visibly to their companies’ success. That’s why more employers are starting to place greater value now on business outcomes and less on ‘presenteeism’.
AI and transparency go hand in hand
But we mustn’t get complacent or apply AI uniformly. Even though many studies say that AI will create many more jobs than it replaces we have to manage its impact differently depending on the type of work it affects. Manual labourers like factory workers, farmers and truck drivers understandably fear the march of technology. In mass-market industries, technology has often (but not always) completely replaced the clearly defined tasks that these workers carry out repeatedly during their shifts. Employers and governments must work together to communicate honestly to workers about the trajectory of threatened jobs and help them to adapt and develop new skills for the future.
Overcoming the tyranny of averages in service
An area where we risk automating inappropriately is that which includes entry- and mid-level customer service professions like call centre workers, bank managers, and social care providers. Most will agree that automating some formerly personal transactions, like withdrawing cash, turned out pretty well. However higher involvement decisions like buying home insurance or selecting the best credit card usually benefit from having a sympathetic human guide them through to the right decision.
Surprisingly, AI may be able to help re-humanise customer service in these areas threatened by over- or inappropriate automation. Figuring out the right product or service to offer someone with complex needs at the right time, price and place is notoriously hard. Whether it’s to give a medical diagnosis or recommend pet insurance, AI can give service workers the data they need to provide highly personalised information and expert advice.
There are no simple formulae to apply to the labour market as technology advances and affects all of our lives. While it's becoming clear that the AI's benefits to knowledge workers are almost universally positive, others must get the support to adapt and reskill so they are not left behind.
For consumers, however, AI means being freed from the ‘tyranny of averages’ that makes so many transactions, particularly with large, faceless organisations so soul-destroying. For this and other reasons I mentioned, I truly believe AI will indeed help restore our humanity